It was a spectacular crash, the first I’d ever seen. Two cars, at the intersection of State and Old County Roads, hit like billiard balls and bounced straight backwards. Happy for all, the only injury was a young passenger in one car who sliced up his forehead. Pieces of cars were all over the road, and in typical Vineyard fashion motorists began stopping and running to assist. The EMTs soon arrived, calm returned, the debris was kicked off the road and we all went on about our business.
But wait a minute, I said. It had been a clear, sunny fall afternoon with perfect visibility. The road was dry, no deer had bolted from the woods and the drivers weren’t speeding, but they had hit almost dead, straight head on. One car had been going up-Island on State Road; the other was heading down-Island also on State Road. As we were waiting for the ambulances the driver who’d been heading up-Island mumbled she thought she’d had the right of way. Only much later did I realize that she thought she could turn with impunity from State Road onto Old County Road. In fact she thought that State Road became Old County Road.
Several weeks later I went back to the scene of the accident, got out of the car and walked around. Of course she would have thought that. Over the years, bit by bit, to smooth things out, the intersection had been widened. What had once been an old-fashioned T intersection was now a gigantic asphalt maw. Once, if you were on Old County Road you’d come to State Road, stop, look both ways, and then proceed. Now, in several directions you don’t really need to stop, you can just slow down and slide right through. Not all instances of pavement inflation are so perilous in effect, but it is not hard to find numerous examples that detract from our quality of life.
We once had a couple of friends come to the Vineyard for a holiday who had never been here before. They arrived by plane at night. We were returning to Vineyard Haven when the husband in the backseat started laughing. We were coming down the hill on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to the intersection with State Road. He’s a pilot, and he said it looked like we were landing at O’Hare Airport. There it was; four lanes with striping and reflectors embedded in the pavement. I knew exactly what he meant. We were on final approach to the runway.
This was not what I hoped would be their first impression. My first memory of the Vineyard was vividly different. I had also arrived at night, and we were heading up-Island on North Road. The moon was shining through the overhanging branches on a narrow country lane. It was wonderful. I thought this place was magic.
That’s what we want everyone to think. We need people to believe the Island is different, and find it wonderful because it is different. If for no other reason, our economy depends on it. We have to be different. We are not Fall River or Revere Beach. We are not Scarsdale, New York or Omaha, Nebraska. People come because we’re not those places. That’s why they stay, that’s why they raise children and retire here, and that’s why so many express such passion about preserving it.
Nevertheless, our public roadways look increasingly like everywhere else. Perhaps the best example is the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. It is ugly and ordinary for nearly its entire length. That road could be anywhere, but shouldn’t be here.
Suppose we wanted to change it. What steps would we take? One example, which may offer guidance, is the work the joint transportation committee of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is doing right now at the intersection of State and Old County Roads. Daniel Greenbaum, a civil engineer, retired president of an illustrious engineering firm and the Chilmark representative to the committee, has made a sketch. It shows a T intersection. No wide lanes, no ability to pass, just a T intersection. Think of the intersection of Middle Road and Music street as a comparison. Mr. Greenbaum’s sketch looks like that. Simple enough, but because this sketch comes from someone with an engineering license it will have considerable weight with district five of the Massachusetts Highways Department.
Most state highway departments think about the automobile first, so Mr. Greenbaum’s sketch is really rather radical. The sketch implies that, no, we want simple roads, we don’t favor the car, we want to look different, our livelihood depends on folks who find the Vineyard different, and we want to keep it that way. “Slow Down, You’re not Off-Island Anymore,” says the bumper sticker. Dozens of communities across the United States have already moved to reclaim their roads, and we can do it too.
The more one thinks about Mr. Greenbaum’s sketch the more radical it becomes. The new intersection will have less asphalt. Reducing pavement and thereby reducing maintenance costs and capital budgets really has implications — think at the larger scale of global warming, a greener community, the nation’s economy, and tax savings, and Mr. Greenbaum’s sketch takes on some real political weight.
But the Island can’t simply rely on the Dan Greenbaums of the world — on the kindness of volunteers. We need a process, which makes every road change subject to public discussion. We need pictures, designs and complete plans followed by public debate. But that won’t happen if we just continue to let the various Departments of Public Works widen a stretch of road here, and add a shoulder there. The public has to be involved, and the implications of each change debated from a broader perspective than just that of the car.
Craig Whitaker is an architect who lives in New York city and Vineyard Haven.